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Eclectic legacy

Music | Gruff but talented, Alex Chilton didn't worry about popular taste

Issue: "Profiles in effective compassion," April 24, 2010

In the introduction to her just-published book Memphis Boys: The Story of American Studios, Roben Ford expresses regret over not having included among her interview subjects Alex Chilton, who as a member of the Box Tops recorded at American Studios: "Given Chilton's reportedly prickly personality, it is not surprising that he did not respond to a request to rehash his early recordings one more time."

Chilton died of a heart attack on St. Patrick's Day at the age of 59, and when it came to granting interviews, there was nothing "reported" about his prickliness. He made no secret of his lack of interest in the eras about which he was asked the most-his years as the Box Tops' enfant terrible (1967-1969) and his years as the inventor of power-pop with Big Star (1972-1974).

Since his death, "my encounter with Alex" stories have sprouted up across the internet, most climaxing with a distinctly rude Chiltonian rebuff. But there's no vindictiveness in the reminiscences. Indeed, they make having been "blown off" by Chilton seem like an honor.

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What made his offstage rudeness palatable was the sense that it protected something delicate. In Chilton's case, that something was a kind of cool that would've been lost on the average arena-show crowd but that came to vibrant life on the small-club stages that Chilton made his home away from home for the last quarter century.

Nothing exemplified the delicacy of his cool like his voice. A gruff, bluesy instrument with the Box Tops, it later morphed into a boyish, Chet Baker croon that helped his increasingly, and at times bizarrely, eclectic set lists go down.

His eclecticism was as immune to the vicissitudes of popular taste as it was alert to the worth of quirky songs that had fallen into pop culture's memory hole. So it was that after he sobered up in the mid-1980s (even he referred to his post--Big Star years as his "lost decade") and resumed at 34 the career he'd all but thrown away, he did so with recordings and shows that, while sprinkled with his "greatest hits" (the Box Tops' "Soul Deep," Big Star's "In the Street," which, as recorded by Cheap Trick, became known as the theme from That '70s Show), were geared more toward the music he'd loved while growing up.

In a typical Chilton show, listeners could encounter anything from Brill Building pop (Skeeter Davis' "Let Me Get Close to You"), obscure soul (the Olympics' "Mine Exclusively," Danny Pearson's "What's Your Sign Girl?"), and country (the Carter Family's "No More the Sun Shines on Lorena"), to old blues (Slim Harpo's "Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Noo/Tip On In"), foreign-language schmaltz ("Volare"), and traditional folk ("My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean").

Two of his latter-day solo albums, the all-acoustic Clichés (1994) and the all-electric Set (2000), contained nothing but his take on other composers' songs, with the former including a composition by Bach ("Gavotte"). In Space, the 2005 album he recorded with a reformed Big Star, included "Aria, Largo" by Bach's baroque contemporary Georg Muffat.

Perhaps, coming from someone so eclectic, his original Christmas song "Jesus Christ" (first released on Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers) can be written off as one more genre exercise.

But on his 1987 LP High Priest, he also recorded a gospel number called "Come by Here" by one Alvis Armstrong. A contemporary updating of "Kumbaya," it's as explicit as it is joyous. That its hope may not have served as anything more than a metaphor to Chilton should not shortchange the edification that it offered-and offers-a generation of spiritually hungry Chilton fans.

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